Phillies prospect Gillies beating the odds

BY foxsports • February 25, 2010

As the world arrived in his hometown, Tyson Gillies left.

Gillies was born in Vancouver, B.C., and grew up north of the city. He lives downtown but hasn’t been able to witness the finest hour of the city he adores. When the Winter Olympics commenced this month, he was some 3,000 miles away. Why? Gillies has always been a worker, and it was time to report for duty with the Philadelphia Phillies, slalom and bobsled be damned.

Friends and family members have called Gillies during the Games, innocently reminding him of the huge party going on without him. It hasn’t been easy for him. He has tried not to watch on television. He knows he’s missing out.

“I live right downtown,” Gillies said, a little ruefully, in an interview last week. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Yet, he knows that watching someone else’s dream come true can’t compare with fulfilling your own. And he’s getting closer. A lot closer. Baseball scouts have a hard time figuring out if they are more in love with his energy or his ability. Last year, the left-handed-hitting outfielder batted .341 and swiped 44 bases at Class A High Desert. He chases fly balls as if racing for a puck during the third period of a tied hockey game.

And that’s during batting practice.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody on a baseball field work as hard as he does,” said Phillies pitching prospect Phillippe Aumont, his spring roommate and Canadian countryman. “He just runs.”

Barring injury, Gillies, 21, could become one of the game’s most compelling success stories of the new decade. And if you only watch from a distance, you won’t know one of the biggest reasons why.

Gillies was born with significant hearing impairment in both ears, the result of dead nerves in his cochlea. He must wear Bluetooth-sized hearing aids.

He is legally deaf.

And even though he hasn’t played above Class A, Gillies’ status as a high-end prospect could bring inspiration to millions of Americans and Canadians who are deaf or hard of hearing – as much as 10 percent of the population, according to estimates by hearing health associations.

“People tell me that all the time,” Gillies said, as he settled into the Phillies’ spring clubhouse last week. “I get mail from people saying, ‘My daughter or my son is hearing impaired,’ or, ‘I’m hearing impaired, and it’s good to see someone hasn’t let it drag them down. You overcame it. You didn’t let it bother you.’”

Gillies (pronounced GIL-eez) and his family didn’t learn of his impairment until after he turned 4 years old. Up to that point, lip-reading helped Gillies speak perfectly and communicate in many settings.

Then adults began noticing that the super-kinetic kid wouldn’t listen to directions unless he happened to be looking right at them. He would wander off and get lost. Some people, Gillies said, thought he was “a troublemaker, a devil child, because no one could control me.”

“I got tested three times,” he said. “I was reading the guy’s lips. They didn’t think that someone that young would be able to read lips. Somehow, I was able to do it and fool my mom and dad.

“Finally, on the last test, the guy sat in the booth and decided to close the curtains. I just didn’t answer at all. I didn’t know what to do.”

His parents, Tony and Lanin, did. Young Tyson was fitted for hearing aids almost immediately.

“When I got my hearing aids, that’s pretty much when my life started, when the adventure started,” he said. “My parents are two of the strongest people I know, to deal with me growing up. That wouldn’t have been easy.

“You could imagine a 4-year-old with hearing aids. You tend to throw them away or lose them or break them. They had to get me more than enough loaners and pairs.”

From those frustrating times, a potential star emerged. Gillies was one of three prospects sent from the Mariners to the Phillies in the December deal that brought former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to Seattle. Gillies is well-known in baseball circles for reasons that have nothing to do with his compelling personal tale.

One American League scout compared Gillies to current Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino and predicted that he will become a “fan favorite” in Philly.

“He’s full-bore on every play,” the scout said. “He hustles. He runs. He throws. He’s got the tools. I think he’s a big leaguer for sure.

“And if the power develops, he’s going to be an All-Star.”

Gillies is far from a finished product, largely because he didn’t focus exclusively on baseball until midway through high school. As with most Canadian boys, he loved hockey first. But he decided to give up his country’s pastime when, as a 5-foot-6 teenager, he figured he was too small to advance in the sport.

If he had only waited a little while longer, Gillies might be playing alongside Jarome Iginla rather than cheering for him. He’s now listed at 6-foot-2 and a sculpted 190 pounds … but isn’t second-guessing himself.

“I don’t regret anything,” he said.

As it happened, Gillies applied a hockey ethic to his baseball career: In order to find the best amateur competition, he moved.

At 16, he left Kamloops, B.C., to stay with a host family in the Vancouver suburb of Langley, three hours away. There he played for the Langley Blaze, in the same British Columbia Premier Baseball League that produced Justin Morneau, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster.

“He loved baseball so much that he said, ‘Hey, this is the place for me to go,’” said Wayne Norton, the Mariners scout who signed Gillies as a 25th-round pick. “He left his friends and family behind. He gave that up for baseball.

“And you know what the best part is? He never mentions it.”

Gillies joined Team Canada leading up to the 2006 World Junior Championships but was the last player cut prior to the tournament. He had fit in very nicely with his teammates, but head coach Greg Hamilton concluded that Gillies’ still-raw tools weren’t quite developed enough to merit inclusion on a tight 18-man roster.

Yet, even during the conversation in which Hamilton told Gillies that he hadn’t made the team, he said: “You’ve got a chance to play at the highest level.”

“A gamer,” Hamilton recalled this week in a telephone interview. “He was a real engaging kid. He was at the front of the line in everything, and it was genuine. It wasn’t false hustle.

“You always had a sense that he believed in his talents. He wasn’t one of those kids who got overly down on himself when things didn’t go well. He just wanted to be a player, and he wasn’t afraid to work at it.”

So we’ve noticed. The hyper little kid from Kamloops has traveled pretty far, thanks to talent, grit and a couple of hearing aids.

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